Verizon IndyCar Series rookie and Bogota, Colombia native Carlos Munoz is proud of where he’s from. That said, he doesn’t mind being away from home for the time being.
“I think right now we’re really lucky to be here in America, not in Colombia,” he said after finishing third behind fellow Colombians Carlos Huertas and Juan Pablo Montoya in today’s Race 1 of the Shell/Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston. “I think right now Colombia, [it would] be really crazy to go out in the streets and celebrate.”
The Andretti Autosport youngster probably has a point. In addition to the occurrence of the first all-Colombian podium in Indy-car history, the Colombian national soccer team advanced to the World Cup quarterfinals today with a 2-0 win over Uruguay.
Party time in Bogota.
“Obviously the football – as you guys say it, soccer – is huge in Colombia, and I was there last week for every game,” said Huertas, who earned his inaugural Verizon IndyCar Series win today. “And every time the game starts, like the whole country stops. People don’t even work.
“My win is just a little bit [of the celebration]. I hope they’re happy, and the people that watched it back home, my girlfriend, my friends, my family, my mom was sitting there watching it, I hope they’re very happy, because it means a lot to me.”
The all-Colombian podium can also be interpreted as a sign of just how much influence Montoya has had over the years.
In post-race, Montoya recalled looking up to Colombian F1 and IndyCar racer Roberto Guerrero when he was young. And in turn, Huertas and Munoz looked up to Montoya as he left his own mark around the world in CART, F1, and NASCAR.
“When I went up, karting and racing in Colombia was there and a couple people tried it,” said Montoya. “But nobody ever thought you could make a career out of this.”
Munoz was lucky enough to have some contact with Montoya when he was in karting.
“He’s always been an example for me and also for a lot of drivers growing up…It was nice to have when I was small as an example, and right now competing against him at the track, he’s very good,” he said.
Huertas also noted his appreciation for what Montoya’s done. But he stressed that on the track, it’s all business – and no deference to childhood heroes.
“I have huge respect for him, and to beat him shows that I’ve done a good job,” he said. “But my objective is to beat all the drivers, and I treat them all the same. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be the same feeling.”
“We’re hoping to give Toronto and Ontario and Canadian sports fans in general something to cheer about over the next season,” Hinchcliffe quipped during a teleconference on Wednesday.
Granted, there are likely to be several challenges to overcome, notably for Wickens, who returns to single-seater competition for the first time since 2011, when he was a champion of the Formula Renault 3.5 series and served as test driver for the now defunct Manor Racing (then known as Marussia Virgin Racing).
Having spent every year since then in DTM, where he won a total of six races and finished as high as fourth in the championship (2016), Wickens knows returning to open wheel competition will be an adjustment. However, he explained that the history of Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, specifically its Indy Lights history, speaks to their ability to help a driver adapt, and he rates the program they’re putting together very highly.
“I think Schmidt Peterson Motorsports have a fantastic driver development program. They showed that in their multiple Indy Lights championships along the way. I think we will have a strong program in place. I have a feeling that the simulator will be my new best friend,” Wickens said when asked about getting reacquainted with an open-wheel car.
Of course, having an experienced teammate like Hinchcliffe to lean on will undoubtedly help the transition, something Wickens readily admitted.
“I’m very fortunate that I have James as my teammate because he’s so experienced, I can learn off him. Because we already have such a good off-track relationship, I feel like you can just take his word, trust him, kind of move forward with it,” he revealed.
They’ve been teammates before, both in karting where they first met in 2001, and then in the now-defunct A1 Grand Prix series in 2007-2008, a series that pitted nations against each other in spec open-wheel cars. Funnily, that A1GP type of vibe returns as Schmidt Peterson Motorsports now has that with its “Team Canada” mantra while all four of Andretti Autosport’s full-season drivers are American.
For Hinchcliffe, Wickens’ background, even if it hasn’t been in the single-seater realm since 2011, was a big selling point in adding him to the team.
“In Robby, we have a proven winner at a very high level. The level of technical expertise that he comes with from his time in DTM is very impressive,” he said of Wickens’ technical background.
Hinchcliffe revealed that Wickens’ feedback to the team and his ability to quickly adapt to the chassis took everyone somewhat by surprise.
“We did our ride swap. He had two hours in the car, hardly anything even resembling a test day, and his performance was pretty impressive. No doubt the time in Road America helped because that really gave us a better sense of his technical feedback, integrated with the team a little bit more. Everybody was happy to work with him on that day,” said Hinchcliffe.
Further still, Hinchcliffe is firm in his belief that the 2018 aero kit and its reduction in aerodynamic downforce will fall right into Wickens’ wheelhouse, based on Hinchcliffe’s own take after sampling Wickens’ DTM Mercedes earlier this year.
“In all honesty, I was saying earlier today, the 2018 car is probably better suited for him than the 2017 car because of the experience he’s had the last handful of series,” Hinchcliffe asserted.
“The (aero kit) was such high downforce, it would be a big change coming out of DTM. But with the loss of downforce that we’ve seen, the car is moving around a little bit more, brake zones, things like that, it won’t be as big a transition I think. Just based on the experience that I got in our ride swap, I think he’s going to adapt very quickly, be comfortable very quickly, and as a result be competitive very quickly. So it’s going to be exciting.”
As for expectations heading into next year, team co-owner Schmidt did not mince words and expects the team’s performance to resemble what they did in 2012, 2013, and 2014, when they won a total of four races (with driver Simon Pagenaud) and finished in the top five in the championship each year.
“We had a stint in ’12, ’13, ’14 where we finished fifth in the points (or better. I think we want to get back to that level of competition,” Schmidt added. “We felt like we were missing things in having two cars with equal funding and equal drivers and equal capabilities. We think this gets back there.”